The world should be “reassured” about the possibility of new variants of the COVID-19 virus circulating in China, said leading Chinese scientist George Gao.
A paper by Gao and colleagues published Wednesday in the medical journal The Lancet showed that no new variants had appeared in the first weeks of the recent outbreak in China, after the end of its zero-COVID policy led to a huge surge in cases.
“The world should be completely reassured by the fear that there are new variants or special variants circulating (in China),” Gao, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Microbiology and former director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The variants causing infections in China were the same Omicron subvariants – BA.5.2 and BF.7 – seen in other parts of the world, he said by email.
The study analyzed 413 new cases of COVID in Beijing between Nov. 14 and Dec. 20, 2022, and found that all were likely caused by existing strains. It found that 90% of the mostly locally acquired infections were due to the two subvariants mentioned above.
The results are representative of the entire country, the authors said, citing the characteristics of Beijing’s population and the circulation of highly transmissible COVID strains.
In December, China ended more than three years of a strict zero-COVID policy, which included citywide closures, mass testing and extensive quarantine, followed by a surge in infections among its 1.4 billion people.
A leading government scientist declared on January 21 that 80% of the population had already been infected, and the Chinese CDC has repeatedly stated over the past month that ongoing monitoring has shown no new strains of COVID-19 have been found.
Many countries required Chinese travelers to be tested for COVID after the large outbreak, citing concerns that new variants could emerge and a lack of data, although China has said the measures are not warranted.
Gao said China was continuing widespread viral genomic sequencing and would identify any new variants if they emerged.
He said cases were currently declining, but “a new wave is possible in the future.”
The Chinese-funded study published in The Lancet was conducted by researchers from the Center for Disease Prevention and Control in Beijing, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the CDC, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences University.
The authors noted that the study had some limitations, such as China’s decision to end large-scale mandatory testing.
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